Science

Is "Desert Soilization" Real? Let scientific principles and facts speak for themselves

Since 2016, Prof. Zhijian Yi's desert soilization team at Chongqing Jiaotong University has successfully tested and demonstrated nearly 20,000 mu in different deserts, Gobi and islands at home and abroad, which has attracted wide acclaim at home and abroad. The success of desert soilization has broken through the traditional perception of a few experts. Please see how Prof. Yi Zhijian responds to the untruths with scientific principles and facts.

Editor's Note Three articles have been published by The Innovation on the academic debate on "desert soils" (or "sand to soil") (Table 1). This is the Chinese version of the third article (see "Previous recommendations" below for the Chinese versions of the first and second articles). The more the truth is debated, the clearer it becomes! I hope we (authors/editors/readers, etc.) can all get a glimpse of the essence of scientific truth-seeking in these debates.

Table 1 List of articles

Is "Desert Soilization" Real? Let scientific principles and facts speak for themselvesIs "Desert Soilization" Real? Let scientific principles and facts speak for themselvesIs "Desert Soilization" Real? Let scientific principles and facts speak for themselvesIs "Desert Soilization" Real? Let scientific principles and facts speak for themselvesIs "Desert Soilization" Real? Let scientific principles and facts speak for themselvesIs "Desert Soilization" Real? Let scientific principles and facts speak for themselvesIs "Desert Soilization" Real? Let scientific principles and facts speak for themselves

Ulaanbaatar Desert Soilization Test Site

In the article "A misleading way to transform the natural desert into farmland" (hereinafter referred to as "the article"), Y.C. Cheng et al. published a review in The Innovation. We would like to respond to the commentary "A misleading way to transform the natural desert into farmland" (hereinafter referred to as "the article"), which questions the results of desert soils. We would like to point out that the tweet of "'sand into soil' is debatable" published by Yongchun Zheng and others on The Innovation public website is not consistent with their English commentary: in the tweet, they refer to desert soil transformation as In the tweet, the academic questioning of "a misleading way" was changed into some different views such as "should the desert be treated". Our response here is in response to the questioning of desert soiling in the English commentary.

The paper attributes the success of desert soiling to the "shallow groundwater" of the test site, and then questions the "a misleading way" of desert soiling. We would like to point out that the evidence in this article is inaccurate and untrue, and the "inferences" made are completely different from the objective facts, and there may be other "fabrications".

First, the article begins by providing pictures, asserting that the depth of groundwater at the Ulaanbaatar Desert Soilification Base is only about 0.2 meters or less than 1 meter, and attributing the success of desert soiling to "shallow groundwater". However, we found that the three pictures of "shallow groundwater" provided in the article are inaccurate and distorted. Figure 1 shows a blurred image of "good reed growth" and "groundwater depth of less than 1 meter", which was taken near the Ulaanbaatar Desert Soilification Base. However, in reality, there is no reed growing within at least 1,000 meters of the location of the base. We would like to know when and where the picture was taken. Figure 2 shows an example of our "failure" in Minqin provided in the article. However, our team members immediately went to the field to investigate and found that the plot in Figure 2 was not a soil-based plot. We questioned why a purely sandy plot was used as a soil-based plot.

Is "Desert Soilization" Real? Let scientific principles and facts speak for themselves

Figure 1 The article claims that the "reeds near the test site" in the Ulaanbaatar Desert

Is "Desert Soilization" Real? Let scientific principles and facts speak for themselves

Figure 2 Plot of Minqin Desert "Soilization Failure" provided in the paper

Is "Desert Soilization" Real? Let scientific principles and facts speak for themselves

Figure 3 The article claims satellite imagery from Google Earth Pro

Figure 3 is a "Google Earth Pro mosaic image" from June to August 2021 around the Ulaanbaatar Desert Soilification Site, which claims that "natural vegetation is growing well". However, the fact is that there is no image of the base at this time in Google Earth Pro public images. The satellite images (Figures 4 and 5), aerial photos (Figure 6) and video (Video 1) we have obtained all show the desert desolation around the base, which is completely different from Figure 3. We would like the author of this article to disclose the original images and sources.

Is "Desert Soilization" Real? Let scientific principles and facts speak for themselves

Figure 4 Image acquired by the Gaofen 2 satellite on August 7, 2021

Is "Desert Soilization" Real? Let scientific principles and facts speak for themselves

Figure 5 Google Earth Pro satellite image of the Ulaanbaatar desert base before soilization (July 2015)

Is "Desert Soilization" Real? Let scientific principles and facts speak for themselves

Figure 6 "Oasis", a soil-based site in the Ulaanbaatar Desert (September 11, 2021)

Second, the conclusion of the article that the soil chemical base is in the "shallow groundwater" area is not consistent with the actual situation. In fact, the existence of shallow groundwater is not judged by "satellite images", but by geological exploration. The actual situation is that the groundwater depth map provided by the local government (Figure 7) shows that the overall groundwater depth of the base is greater than 10 meters, and our actual geological survey shows that the depth of groundwater at the lowest location of the base is greater than 15 meters, which is different from the article "shallow groundwater level is about 0.2 meters" or "less than 1 meter ", the base is located in low-lying areas, ponds raise the water table and other descriptions are far from.

Is "Desert Soilization" Real? Let scientific principles and facts speak for themselves

Figure 7 Groundwater burial depth map in and around the Ulaanbaatar Desert Soilification Base

The article is unfair in questioning desert soiling based on "shallow groundwater", but only for the Ulaanbaatar Desert, without mentioning our soiling experiments in other deserts. We point out that there is no "shallow groundwater" in several other desert test sites, such as the Taklamakan Desert (including the Ruoqiang Gobi), the Middle East Desert, and the Sahara Desert. Among them, the depth of groundwater in Ruoqiang Gobi is greater than 50 m, and plants grow abundantly after soilization (Figure 8). Even in the Ulaanbaatar Desert, plants grow under mulching and irrigation at the lake mentioned in the paper (Fig. 9), and plants are rare in the pure sandy area around the lake (rich in "shallow groundwater"). (Figure 10).

Is "Desert Soilization" Real? Let scientific principles and facts speak for themselves

Figure 8 Plants at the Ruoqiang Gobi (mixed sand and gravel) Soilization Test Site, Xinjiang (July 16, 2021)

Is "Desert Soilization" Real? Let scientific principles and facts speak for themselves

Figure 9 Desert lake edge mentioned in the article, where plants can only grow with mulch and irrigation, not lush with a high water table (April 5, 2022)

Is "Desert Soilization" Real? Let scientific principles and facts speak for themselves

Figure 10 Drought-tolerant plants grow naturally after soilization in the Ulaanbaatar Desert where groundwater is buried at a depth greater than 50 meters, in contrast to the desert silence (May 29, 2021)

Third, in addition to the inaccurate and distorted photos, the article is also suspected of other fabrications, and the relevant perceptions depart from common knowledge in the relevant scientific and technological fields. The article claims that our binding material is CMC-Na, a "common industrial polymer", and cites reference [2] (Cheng, Dao-Yuan, Introduction to Chemical Sand Fixation Abroad, World Desert Research, 1980(1): 33-37) to prove that "this material has been used as a water retention agent in agriculture since the 1930s. This material has been used in agriculture as a water retaining agent since the 1930s". However, our review of the literature shows that there is no mention of "CMC-Na", "water retention agent" or "application in agriculture" throughout the article. In fact, the industrial synthesis of water retention agents only began in the 1960s. Clearly, the evidence is not based on facts. In fact, our binding material is a self-developed modified CMC material. The paper also confused the binding material with water retention agent and chemical sand fixing agent, and concluded that the binding material "has no effect on dry, loose sand", which is not consistent with the actual situation (Figure 11). Due to the lack of relevant theoretical knowledge, practical knowledge and actual investigation, other assertions made in the paper (including the precise calculation of cost, "sand is still sand", etc.) deviate from common sense and facts.

Is "Desert Soilization" Real? Let scientific principles and facts speak for themselves

Figure 11 Ulaanbuhe Desert Soilization Base: Pulling out the roots and bringing out the "mud" (August 28, 2021)

Fourth, the paper also applies the traditional theory of soil formation and rejects the study of desert soils based on the assertion that "plants grow when there is water". In our opinion, we cannot use the traditional theory of soil formation and soil composition to define new things; we cannot use the assertion that "plants grow when there is water" to deny new exploration. Practice shows that soilization is not only applicable to ordinary sand, but also to other granular materials such as coral sand, broken stones and wood chips. These granular materials can also germinate and grow when sown immediately after soilization. Repeated experiments with desert soilization under different scenarios showed that the plant growth conditions contrasted sharply with those of the unsoiled plots (Figures 12 and 13). The "tighter top and looser bottom" mechanics of the desert soils are more conducive to plant growth, with greater plant biomass (Figure 14), more water and fertilizer conservation, and sustained soil properties that are non-toxic and non-hazardous (tested by a third-party authority). All of this is based on years of research and verification in 17,000 acres of test plots.

Is "Desert Soilization" Real? Let scientific principles and facts speak for themselves

Figure 12 Comparison of plant growth in soilized plots in the Ulaanbaatar Desert (left, trial by the soilization team) and unsoiled plots (right, trial by another team) (August 12, 2016)

Is "Desert Soilization" Real? Let scientific principles and facts speak for themselves

Figure 13 Drought-tolerant plants growing in natural conditions on abandoned plots after soilization of the Ulaanbaatar Desert, in contrast to the desert in the distance (April 9, 2022)

Is "Desert Soilization" Real? Let scientific principles and facts speak for themselves

Figure 14 Plant roots are well developed and biomass is high under the "top-tight bottom-loose" mechanical profile structure (September 10, 2018)

Summary and Outlook

Desertification is a major global ecological problem that affects human survival and development. Global desertification expands by 50,000 to 70,000 square kilometers every year, and the sandy land area in China reaches 1.73 million square kilometers. There are international conventions for desertification control, and China has the Office of Sand Control, the Three North Forest Protection Bureau and the Law of Sand Control. The experimental demonstrations of desert soilization are all based on the urgent needs of local sand prevention and control and ecological restoration, and also undergo strict ecological environment and water resources assessment, and the water consumption is completely controlled within the local limit. Desert soilization technology is an interdisciplinary research that integrates sand control and ecological restoration functions, not "a misleading way" as claimed in this paper. Soilization to solve the global desertification ecological problem is a good thing, not a bad thing. In our opinion, scientific research should be open and inclusive; scientific researchers should practice what they preach, not just sit and talk; they should study real problems, real research problems, and solve real problems; innovation always comes with questioning and grows with questioning, but all questioning must be based on reliable principles and facts.

Author: Yi Zhijian, Professor II, Doctor, PhD, Vice President of Chongqing Jiaotong University, National "Hundred Million Talents Project", the first and second level candidates, national outstanding contribution of young and middle-aged experts, enjoys the special allowance of the State Council Government. He has made a series of achievements in fracture mechanics, reinforced concrete structures, pavement materials and structures, ecological mechanics and desertification control, published more than 100 papers and granted more than 40 invention patents.

Source: Chongqing Jiaotong University Alumni Association